When it comes to Belgium, chances are you would remember Belgian beer, waffles, chocolate or even french fries (yes, they’re Belgian, despite the name). Perhaps you’ve been to Brussels, Antwerp or one of the cozy medieval towns such as Gent or Bruges. But I would bet that most people would probably not have heard of Hallerbos, also known as Blue Forest, located just to the south of Brussels. Every spring, around the second half of April, thousands and thousands of blooming bluebells turn the forest into a truly magical straight out of the fairy-tale. A beautiful view and a must-visit location for any photographer.
I learned about Hallerbos purely by chance. As I was surfing the web one cold January night looking for best landscape locations in Europe when I stumbled across this article. Blue forest was one of the destinations in the list. I felt instantly intrigued and with it being a mere five hours drive from Bremen where I currently reside, I just couldn’t let this opportunity slip.
The most difficult thing about visiting Hallerbos is picking the right dates. The problem is that bluebells only bloom for a very short period of time, a week to 10 days, depending on the weather. On a good year you might get two weeks. Not a whole lot of wiggle room either way. To make matters worse, the exact dates cannot be known in advance as they shift every season. Come too early and you will only see patches of blue, come a few days late – and the bloom will be gone. If your live nearby, your best bet is to wait till April when Hallerbos website starts to publish more accurate forecasts and notes about the current state of the bloom. Otherwise, take your best guess and hope you get lucky.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a luxury of being able to plan the trip 2 weeks in advance, so I opted for the latter. I took my time to study the blooming reports for all the previous years and other materials available on the website. What I found out was that for a few years in a row now the peak of the blooming season happened somewhere during the last decade of April, with the bloom being pretty much over by May 1st. I didn’t fancy taking a vacation just to visit the forest, so one weekend was all I had. Looking at the calendar I figured that a weekend of April 22-23 would probably be my safest bet. In retrospective, the best days this year would probably have been during the workweek, somewhere around 25th, but I ended up close enough.
When choosing a place to stay, my personal recommendation would be Brussels, especially if you have a car. Hallerbos is just 30 kilometers away to the south, making it an easy morning drive. Stay a couple nights and you can easily combine it with a sightseeing tour of the Belgian (and European) capital, which is especially helpful if you get unlucky with the weather. Unfortunately that’s quite common in Belgium this time of year. Hallerbos is definitely best visited on a clear sunny day.
That’s what happened to me in fact. I arrived to Brussels late on a Friday night and was ready to head off and meet the Blue Forest early Saturday morning. There was only one problem – the sky was completely grey with no hint of sun anywhere. To add to the misery, it started raining. Note what I hoped for. I have to admit that I was quite tempted to just go back to bed and get some sleep instead of getting wet. In the end though I decided it’s best to give it a go and at least do some location scouting and return on Sunday better prepared.
I arrived to Belgium by car and that’s also the easiest way to get to Hallerbos from Brussels. There are a total of 9 parking lots around the forest, so parking shouldn’t be a big issue. Just check the official website to make sure all of them are open. On that particular day a yearly running event called “bluebell jogging” took place and several parking lots have been closed for that reason. That made me worry that I would have difficulty finding a spot, but it actually turned out very easy – there was loads of space on the very first parking I checked. Granted, the weather was quite bad that morning and many people stayed home, but even on Sunday, the next day, with sun shining brightly, I still easily found a spot at 9:30 in the morning. That is to say, even in peak bloom you don’t have to come crazy early (unless you’re after a sunrise picture), but don’t sleep too long either – the parking lot got very busy by 11am.
In case you don’t have a car or failed to find a parking spot, during the blooming season there’s also a free shuttle bus from a neighbouring town of Halle that departs every 30 minutes, so you can park your car on the streets there and take the bus. Just make sure you study the area map on the website, it’s way more detailed than any other map I checked, including google maps, open maps and waze. Finding Hallerbos parking lots for instance could be a real challenge unless you know where you’re going, since they aren’t really well marked.
I spent a few hours in Hallerbos on Saturday but to my dismay the sun never really appeared. In fact, all “sunny” images in this post are taken on Sunday, the following day, so you can see for yourself just how much better the forest looks when there’s sunlight. Isn’t that true for most landscape photography though?
I still quite loved the place though and coming back the next day only reinforced that impression. The paths are well marked and clean and the whole forest is very well taken care of. It’s also beautiful and charming in any weather. Clouds and rain are not perfect for photography but they give Hallerbos a more mystical and mysterious vibe, vastly different from a sunny day experience. Anywhere you turn, there are all shades of blue and violet covering the ground and giving the forest an enchanting look that looks as if it belongs to a different world.
Official map offers a few routes for exploration, but my personal recommendation is the yellow path and more specifically it’s western part around the place marked as Tranendal. This area has the most bluebells and the views here are the best in the entire Hallerbos. I walked the entire path and recommend doing it too, if you have time and stamina. It’s long, but well worth it.
Make sure you pack a lunch and get enough water. Hallerbos is still a forest, not a park. There are only a couple of little cafes on the outskirts of the area, but not much on the inside, except a few benches here and there that are great to make a stop, rest a bit and have a small picnic. Having some sandwiches will definitely come handy. Unfortunately, other facilities are scarce as well. I’ve only seen one restroom in the entire area – it’s marked with a black house symbol that reads Pavilion on the map I linked above. It’s a nice and clean restroom, but I just wish they had more.
To photographers, especially beginners, my number one tip is – think about composition. It’s crucially important here in the forest where abundance of trees, grass, branches, and everything else in the image can easily make pictures look too busy and chaotic. I’ll be the first to accept that my own photos lack somewhat in this regard – forest photography is not one of my stronger skills yet. However, even being aware of this is an important first step to greatly improve your images. Look for lines, patterns and simple compositions. Come early on a nice sunny day and you should be good to go. Hallerbos is a great place to practice photography and see a great spectacle of nature that can’t be easily witnessed elsewhere. So if you can, definitely make a stop here during the blooming season and best of luck with your pictures!